Bright Lights Film Journal

Percolating Paranoia: Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat

Fritz Lang brings the terrors of noir into the bright kitchens of America. Watch that coffee pot!

In Bright Lights 12 devoted to film noir, Gary Morris locates the malaise giving rise to the noir sensibility in the “mechanized, immoral, soul-destroying city.”1 He defines the urban noir setting as attacking its characters’ chances for “hope, happiness, peace, complacency, and romance” (Morris 16). Although the attack may be related to the loss of a pastoral setting as Morris suggests, many film noir narratives locate those happy possibilities in the seemingly stable institution of the family, and can be read as ironic, hopeless searches for a humanized, moral, soul-restoring home. According to Sylvia Harvey, “the loss of those satisfactions normally obtained through the possession of a wife and the presence of a family” is one of the recurrent themes of film noir.2 Of course, the archetypal array of characters in film noir are not family members, but the hard-boiled, trench-coated detective; the beautiful, duplicitous, and greedy femme fatale with a revolver shoved deep into the pocket of her fur coat; and a fascinating complement of criminals ranging from sleazy and violent hoodlums to their glib and urbane bosses. The film noir narrative, with its aura of paranoia accentuated by nontraditional lighting and mise en scene, usually plays out not in the brightly lit kitchen or living room of a comfortable home but at night in dimly lit back streets glistening with rain or shadowy stairwells filled with looming shadows. Through a careful reading of a noir text that presents both the typical film noir mise en scene and various familial images, a sense of film noir’s complicated relationship to the family develops. The Big Heat (1953), directed by Fritz Lang, represents family life as a sham, as a relationship of convenience, as perverse, and finally as so fragile and threatened that even an icon of domesticity becomes a weapon.

In The Big Heat, violence and criminality contaminate a small city, controlling elections and the police, as well as threatening familial institutions. The cast of characters I have identified as archetypal of film noir narratives is present, but, in keeping with many such films of the ‘50s, they have moved out of the shadowy stairwells and back alleys to occupy well-furnished homes and luxurious estates. Much of the violence occurs offscreen – in the diegesis of the film, occurring no doubt in the old haunts of film noir.3 Violence and criminality still exist, closer and more threatening than ever, but also more insidious. The low-key lighting, off-angle compositions, and night-for-night photography that distinguishes the visual style of noir films is used sparingly in The Big Heat, further blurring the boundary between the criminal elements and the rest of society.

Emphasizing the pressing danger to the family unit, the plot of the film takes the viewer into two false fronts of domesticity before introducing the ideal but threatened Bannion family.4 The opening sequence of the film introduces a husband (only briefly alive) and wife already corrupted. Setting the violent tone, the first shot of The Big Heat is a close-up of a revolver on a desk. As the camera slowly draws back, a hand grasps the gun, a shot is fired, and a man slumps over the desk. The frame continues to enlarge, revealing a woman coming down the stairs. After a cut to medium shot of the woman, her face half in shadow, and a huge grandfather clock reading three o’clock, the sequence goes on to show her coldly assessing the suicide of her husband and making a phone call. Mrs. Duncan, from the opening sequence a policeman’s widow, exhibits the greed and ambition of the archetypal femme fatale, although her sexuality is de-emphasized. A later sequence, an interview between Mrs. Duncan and homicide detective Bannion, visually underscores her duplicity by beginning with a shot of her at a vanity table, reflected in a three-paned mirror as she makes herself up to play the grieving widow.

Mrs. Duncan’s 3 a.m. phone call takes the camera right into the luxurious bedroom of the second false front of domesticity, the home of crime boss Mike Lagana. No mention is made of a wife, and although Lagana talks about his daughter’s parties and dates with a football player, she remains in the story but not in the plot, and never appears onscreen. Lagana has adopted a facade of respectability that includes an opulent home complete with a portrait of his now dead mother dominating the living room, but his lack of real contact with his daughter stands in marked contrast to the Bannion family.

Having established Dave Bannion as the detective in charge of the Duncan suicide, the sequence introducing his family begins with a newspaper headline confirming Mrs. Duncan’s story and then pulls back to reveal Bannion reading the paper in a cozy kitchen. As his blond wife, Katie, clad in a simple polka-dot dress and checked apron, serves their steak and potatoes, Bannion puts away the paper and opens a few beers and they discuss their daughter Joyce. Katie Bannion stands opposed to the femme fatale characters, and presents another female archetype often found in film noir: the woman as redeemer, offering the possibility of reintegration for the alienated man.5 Yet this woman as redeemer is usually represented as bland and undemanding, far removed from Katie’s vivacity. Katie and Bannion’s brief stints of verbal sexual sparring, fairly explicit in a time when censors insisted all bedrooms contain only separate beds, also rounds out their relationship. This familial sequence is shot in classical Hollywood style, with high-key lighting creating minimal, natural looking shadows in the homey kitchen/dining room. But outside the gingham-curtained window, an intensely black night looms and phone calls interrupt the domestic idyll.

When Katie answers an apparently obscene phone call made by one of Lagana’s thugs to threaten Bannion off the Duncan case, Bannion knows his home and family have been threatened. He retaliates by barging into Lagana’s house and roughing up his bodyguard. Lagana strikes back and in a car explosion intended to kill Bannion, Katie is murdered. The final sequence in the Bannion bungalow takes place after her death. As workers remove the last of the furniture, Bannion refuses the help and sympathy of a fellow policeman, who accuses Bannion of being on a “hate binge.” As he stands alone in the empty room, filled with apparently natural light, the camera moves in for a close-up of Bannion’s clenched jaw and teary, determined eyes. The camera then records his exit from the house, remaining inside as he gently closes the door on his idyllic past.

Bannion’s desire to avenge the death of his wife and destruction of his family changes his motivations, and that difference is recorded in the visual texture of the film. Instead of a comfortable cottage he now occupies a shadowy hotel room with a bottle of Scotch on the dresser. His first guest there is Debbie, the girlfriend of Lagana’s main cohort and the beautiful, sexually aggressive half of the femme fatale equation that fills the space left by the desexualized Mrs. Duncan. Debbie comes to Bannion’s room with sexual intentions she defines as “research,” while Bannion hopes to glean information from her about his wife’s killers. For the first time Bannion’s image is split in a mirrored reflection, accentuating the dual sides of his character, and connecting him visually with other duplicitous characters. In one shot during the hotel room sequence, Debbie and Bannion gaze at each other, visually linked by black shadows, each intent on their own very separate goals. But Debbie will not gain undivided attention until later.

Debbie cannot pass a mirror without being drawn into a narcissistic admiration of herself. In one of the most grippingly violent scenes in all of film noir, her beautiful surface is literally burned off. The sequence takes place in a well-lit apartment full of men – including the police commissioner – and underscores the insidious nature of criminality in the film. In the hands of Debbie’s jealous lover Vince, a boiling pot of coffee becomes the weapon.6 In this noir world, criminals wear expensive clothing and inhabit fancy dwellings, but their sadistic cruelty remains intact and unchallenged.

Debbie goes to Bannion for protection and reveals to him the name of the hoodlum directly responsible for his wife’s death. A scene of pseudo-domesticity follows, with Bannion playing the concerned nurse to the disfigured Debbie. Bannion, partially reintegrated into the society he earlier rejected, accepts the help of his police acquaintances and other friends in protecting his daughter. He tells Debbie that the death of Mrs. Duncan will release a letter damning Lagana, but that he was unable to kill her, although he should have.7 Once Bannion has sown this seed in Debbie’s mind and left her alone in the hotel room, she does the rest, avenging Katie’s murder by shooting Mrs. Duncan, and retaliating for her own ruined looks by throwing boiling coffee in the face of her lover.

In the penultimate sequence, Bannion has conquered his demons and resists shooting Vince, instead turning him over to the police. As Debbie dies, shot by Vince, Bannion tells her about his wife and ideal family life, saying Katie used to dress their daughter like a princess and his favorite time of day was when he got home from work and saw his wife looking like she “just stepped down off a birthday cake.” A close-up of Bannion ends the scene, as he says, “I guess it’s that way with all families.”

The only family surviving the noir narrative of The Big Heat exists in an idealized memory of princess girls and birthday cake-beautiful wives. The sham domesticity of the Duncans explodes with Mr. Duncan’s suicide and Lagana’s façade crumbles with the murder of Mrs. Duncan. The Bannions, the only true source of familial scenes and feelings shown onscreen, has been mutilated because of its contiguity with criminal and violent elements. The visual style of The Big Heat accentuates the positive characterization of the institution of family, while simultaneously presenting family life as helpless against the forces of evil surrounding it. Although the destruction of his family arouses his anger, Bannion’s morality does not permit him to avenge himself. He unwittingly sends a creature of the other side to do his dirty work for him and then comforts her as she dies for her trouble.

The Big Heat portrays family life as threatened unto death. The final sequence shows Bannion not with his surviving daughter attempting to rebuild some sort of familial life, but at work in the police station. As he resumes his role as homicide detective by answering a hit-and-run report, he utters the final line of the film, telling a colleague to keep the coffee hot. As he returns to the city streets which led to his family’s destruction, the icon of domesticity has apparently been reined in and returned to its rightful place on the stove. I suggest that the thematic importance of the family in The Big Heat is paradigmatic for many film noirs, and the noir narrative’s relationship to that family must indeed be as important as its relationship to the urban milieu. The final line of The Big Heat can also be read as a warning, a pessimistic message true to the noir sensibility. It is not only in the mean city streets but in every place of business, every government office, and even every family that violence and criminality potentially percolate, waiting to erupt.

  1. Gary Morris, “Noir Country,” Bright Lights 12 (1994):17. []
  2. Sylvia Harvey, “Woman’s Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir,” Women in Film Noir, ed. E. Ann Kaplan (London: British Film Institute, 1980): 27. According to Harvey, the family serves a crucial function in American films, inserting within the film narrative the established values of competitive, repressive and hierarchical relationships,” serving to “legitimize and naturalize these values” (Harvey 22). []
  3. “The diegesis includes events … presumed to have occurred … not shown on screen.” David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: an Introduction, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993): 493. []
  4. Bordwell and Thompson define plot in narrative film as “all the events that are directly presented to us” and contrast that with story, which is “all the events we see and hear, plus all those we infer or assume to have occurred (B&T 496, 497). []
  5. See Janey Place, “Women in Film Noir,” Women in Film Noir, ed. E. Ann Kaplan (London: British Film Institute, 1980). []
  6. When watching this sequence, note how the coffee pot is innocuously present in almost every shot leading up to its use. []
  7. The letter contains details of Lagana’s crime syndicate and will unleash “the big heat,” a slang term for intense policy activity against organized crime. []